Let the dog decide
From the LabLit short story series
6 March 2015
I don’t think I care about dragonfly population dynamics, sometimes I’m not sure I even care about science
Why did the dog eat my data? Because it was s**t. Not in a ‘didn’t support my original hypothesis’ kind of way. Not in a ‘we should still publish it’ kind of way, or even a ‘we should still publish it but probably won’t’ kind of way. It was completely meaningless and I can’t even say we learnt from it.
Of course the actual reason the dog ate my data is that someone is idiotic enough to keep a dog at a field station. What kind of ecologist can justify the environmental impacts of keeping a dog? And this one doesn’t just eat tins of meat, with dubious consequences for food security, it eats paper, with dubious consequences for my PhD.
I knew the dog had a taste for lignin, I knew it liked to liberate things from the dining room table, and I left my notebook full of field data there anyway. I knew the summer’s fieldwork was pointless, that I might as well have spent every single day on the beach, so I let the dog decide whether I should even bother typing it up. Thankfully, he decided I’d wasted enough of my life on this and he saved me the trouble.
The failure of my experiment is all Carlos’ fault. He has the most basic field assistant tasks and he screws up. For a start, it appears he was routinely getting the location wrong for sightings. Maybe we could have worked out some of it from photos, probably not. But there weren’t enough dragonflies anyway, so getting anything meaningful is a lost cause. The dog ate my data, and I’m glad.
I fly back tomorrow and will be in the office on Monday morning.
Look forward to seeing you then,
“You can’t send that.”
Gemma slammed shut the lid of her laptop and swivelled her chair round to face Carlos. “I wasn’t going to send it.”
“No, I was just annoyed, and getting it out of my system before I really have to tell him what happened.” She couldn’t meet Carlos’ gaze – in reality she had no idea whether or not she’d intended to press send. “And I know it’s not all your fault.”
“It was my fault, and I’m sorry.”
Gemma nodded. There was no point in arguing about who was to blame, and she’d never get an apology out of the dragonflies.
Carlos pulled up a chair next to her, revealing a dark tan line below his shorts. It was a sight Gemma had focussed on whenever they’d stopped at the side of a stream to eat their sandwiches, when they’d waded into pools to sample larvae, and when she should have been concentrating on the Odonata.
Eventually Carlos spoke. “If I’m that bad, why did you keep hiring me?”
“I said it wasn’t your fault.”
“We both know I mess up. So why?”
Wallace, the guilty Labrador, rubbed up against Gemma’s legs and she put her hand down to stroke him.
“You did OK last year, and it made sense to keep in with the same person.”
Carlos lowered his voice, his gentle Spanish accent barely perceptible. “You know that’s not what I’m asking.”
Gemma’s heart pounded. She bit her bottom lip, frantically searching for something to say. But just as she took a breath to speak, Wallace jumped up with a bark. His owner, James, banged through the door, his face pink from a day in the sun.
“What’s up, guys?”
“Gemma was just talking about going home.” To Gemma, this sounded like a challenge.
James took off his binoculars and perched on the table next to her. “How do you feel? Ready to be back in the world of hot showers and decent internet?”
“Of course I don’t want to go back – I have to analyse all the data which your dog hasn’t eaten.”
“Yeah, sorry about that. Why didn’t you type it up?”
Gemma shrugged and, to her relief, Carlos and James began to exchange news of the day’s bird sightings. She made her excuses and went upstairs to pack.
The next morning it was still dark when Gemma crept downstairs with her backpack and passport. Outside, the birds were warming up for the dawn chorus, and inside the house everyone slept on. She poured herself some cereal, left a note to say finish the food she was leaving behind, and sat down at the dining room table.
Would she ever come back? She had no idea. Time and money were running out for her PhD, but this had become to feel like home. She looked at her watch – if she was going to reach the airport by bus she couldn’t afford to stall much longer.
With shaking hands, she took a fresh notebook from her bag and began to write.
I hired you because it was the only way I could think of to spend time with you. I don’t think I care about dragonfly population dynamics, sometimes I’m not sure I even care about science. I just want to be an ecologist so I can live in a field station and spend every day counting insects with you.
I hired you because I love you.
Until yesterday these thoughts had been hazy, and now it was hard to believe that they could be crystallised into just four sentences. Reading through the note she could think of nothing to add, so she returned the pen and stood to leave.
She looked over to Wallace, asleep in the corner. She knew Carlos would be the first down in the morning – he was expecting to take her to the airport. Whether the note would still be there for him to see, however, was a decision she would leave to the dog.